Raison d’etre ~ a talisman against depression?
I’m not entirely sure where to start with this post and I feel sure there will be folks yelling at the screen by half way. That is, if they’re not already getting annoyed. From the outset I’m going to be controversial and state that I am no longer remotely convinced of the truth of the chemical imbalance explanation for depression. It’s taken more than twenty years for it to enter into the public consciousness and while some of the effects it has had have been beneficial (for example the lessening of stigma by the recognition of depression as an illness and not as a moral failing or weakness) I am less than sure that the overwhelming medicalisation has been useful for everyone. The comparison is made to conditions such as diabetes where it is essential to life to take medication of some kind daily because a body has ceased to produce the required amount of insulin. Let me say now I am not intending to try and disprove the theory of chemical imbalance here. There is a lot of information out there that may be more convincing that one woman writing from her own experience. It’s almost impossible to measure levels of serotonin accurately in a living brain and more recent studies are revealing some startling conflict between the perceived effectiveness of anti-depressants and their actual effectiveness. I have often wondered if any drop in serotonin is a result of depression rather than a cause, just as anaemia may be a symptom of an underlying disease rather than being the disease itself.
My own experience of anti-depressants is a long one. If anyone was considering telling me I should try them before I diss them, I have two things to say. First, I am not dissing them at all; I am questioning them. Second, I was first put on medication for mental distress when I was thirteen. I’ve probably tried almost everything on the market. When Prozac was first offered to me, back in the early 90s, it was hailed as a wonder drug. My psychiatrist at the time put me on it with the intention that it should stabilise my state until I was well enough to begin psychotherapy. You can’t work through deep stuff if you can’t stop crying long enough to talk. That was the plan. The reality turned out differently. It took a long time before I began to show signs of improvement, despite upping the dose to maximum. I experienced side effects that were disturbing, to say the least. By the time I was feeling well enough to begin any sort of psychotherapy, we were about to move away to another county. The move triggered a massive relapse, and the process went on. I never got psychotherapy. After about eight years I came off Prozac and to my surprise, I didn’t turn into a weeping, wailing heap. I slept better, wasn’t plagued with night terrors and other things I thought down to my illness turned out to have been due to the pills.
When I first started taking Prozac (there have been other pills but I cannot recall brand names) I was in a situation where my life had been turned upside down by events I had little or no control over. I had trouble rooting myself in this new life, and my attempts to win a publishing contract were maddening. I came extremely close several times and it was only after a serious illness that had me rushed to hospital with a suspected brain haemorrhage that I came to terms with the fact that while I felt myself to be a writer, there was no route that would bring me to the fulfilment of that aspiration: publication. So I shut up shop and stopped writing. The sheer stress of bashing my head against the metaphorical doors was going to kill me, though I imagine not many will truly grasp quite why it was that important to me. I’m not sure I can explain adequately. Some would say that if it is writing that gives you pleasure then why is publication so important? It’s because I believe that for me writing is a calling, a vocation, a sacred duty (if that doesn’t sound too grandiose) and part of that calling is the sharing of that work with others. It has been the times when I have felt closest to hearing and obeying that call that I have felt the greatest sense of contentment and completion, a form in inner peace where I know I am on precisely the right path for me. My raison d’etre, if you like: my reason for existence.
During the years when I didn’t write, had excised it from my consciousness, I experienced such emotional pain and I peered almost daily into the void. There were times when if I could have just said, “Let me die now,” I would have done. I did some retraining in an area of holistic healing and the void eased a little. I was good at what I did but the work never took off. Every client was hard won and cherished, and yet there were always too few to become truly a focus for my energies. Looking back I can see that my work in healing has been a part of that calling, that part of the reason I am here is to be a channel for healing.
When another move meant my little healing practise had to shut (new house was too small to offer a designated practise room and I had lost heart. You can only start again so many times) I was in limbo again. I found myself teaching English to students and at first the novelty and the busy-ness drove the darkness away. I was a good teacher. My students sometimes still tell me I’ve been the best teacher they ever had but I wasn’t exclusively teaching them English. I can see now that all the time I was trying to show my students that side of existence that is not visible to the casual glance. Some of them got it; most did not. But it was important to me to try.
When I began blogging in February 2009, it was as if a puzzle piece had fallen into place. At last I had a voice. I could share my thoughts. Self publishing had been around for a long time, but disguised as vanity publishing it never appealed. The opportunity to publish at little or no actual monetary cost, and reach potentially millions of readers, and bypass the stern watchdogs of the old publishing houses was something eagerly awaited by thousands of writers. Yet it was something that took me by surprise. The success I have had so far has been modest(compared to the huge names) but for a writer of vaguely literary works that don’t easily slot into neat genres, I know I’ve done well. I’ve been in various best-seller charts on Amazon, making the top ten in several a good few times.
It’s not been the having of best-selling books that has been the most powerful antidote to depression, though. It’s been the sense that I am achieving my raison d’etre, bit by bit, book by book, reader by reader. It’s been knowing I am on the right path for me at this moment. I’m not denying I have bad days. Bad weeks and months even. At the moment I don’t know how much of that was down to the tumour that was cut out of me a month ago, or due to maddeningly erratic hormones. As my body starts to establish homeostasis and I get a feel for what is illusory and ephemeral, I know that my depression will return. It’s inevitable. Yet the belief in my calling is something that has every time been at the root of my recovery. The belief that I have something of value to offer the world and that what I offer is not simply words on a page. Hemingway once said that writing was easy: you just sit at the typewriter and bleed. He was right, too. The best writing comes from deep inside.
I’m not saying what so many New Age gurus have blathered on about (“Find what you love doing & the rest will fall into place!” “Follow your bliss!”) but there is an element of truth. Each of us have things we are called to do. Only you can determine what they are, and make them your Pole Star, your talisman against the darkness of depression.
(If you go to my Facebook author page here, you”l find details of the cyber party on May 1st to celebrate the release of Square Peg)